Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Realizations Of An Ultrarunner

My name is Chris. I am an ultrarunner. I can’t stop. I need help.

THE HISTORY: I have had four 100-mile run attempts with the following results: two voluntary drops, both after running more than 80 miles, one finish (WOO HOO!!), and one DNF due to not making the time cut-off. The record: 100 milers – 3, me – 1. Still feeling like I had it in me to level the score, it was time to tackle another. Enter Virgil Crest 100. Would I ever learn?

After my attempt at the Massanutten Mountain 100-miler in May and ultimately being “timed-out” by cut-offs after 28 ½ hours and 76 miles of “running”, I swore I wouldn’t do it again. No more 100 milers right now. I have always said that 50 miles is a good distance; it’s hard, you know you have done something, but you’re not totally wasted after. 50 miles is fun and I like fun. My attempts at running 100 miles, even my one successful finish, left me tired and took time to mentally and physically recover. I love the races; they are celebrations with friends and the trails, but I also want to be able to get right back at it afterward. Thinking about it now, it took too long to “get back at it” after each 100 attempt. But unfortunately, as I said in my MMT report, the body forgives what the mind forgets. Apparently I have a very forgiving body and a very short memory.

Shortly after MMT I decided to register for the Virgil Crest 50-miler. I had done it last year and had an absolute blast at it. It’s my home-course, it’s comfortable, and I feel very content on these trails. I always know where I am. But then something happened. I started to get that antsy feeling, reading race reports, talking with others who ran Vermont 100 and Burning River 100 and the excitement just took me over. I started logging the miles again and felt confident that this time I could do it. And what better place to do it than on my own turf, the trails that love me and I love them. It would be perfect. I know my limits; I had no intention of even thinking that I would win or even be under 24 hours, but I knew that, as it is written in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it." Yes, this time it would happen. So onto my e-mail I went, asking Ian to switch me over to the 100 and quickly writing the check to seal the deal.

I couldn’t wait for race weekend to get here. I had my loving Joe-crew and my pacer, Karen. They know me well, my strengths and my weaknesses and what needs to be done to get the job done. This year I decided to forego the camping at the race site and get some good zzzz’s in my own bed. Living only 45 minutes from the start, I decided that it would better serve me to get up a few minutes earlier, loosen-up with a hot shower, and enjoy some hot coffee while taking time to wake up on the drive to Virgil.

RACE DAY: I wasn’t nervous and actually felt very at ease, arriving at the start with about 30 minutes to spare. I started off carrying a bottle of just water with a NUUN tab in it, trying to get a little hydrated early on and knowing that after just eating breakfast I couldn’t stomach any Accelerade right away. I would get a bottle of Accelerade at the first aid station, 5.4 miles away, from Joe.

GRAVEL PIT: It was actually a bit more humid than I would have liked at the start, but there was a bit of a breeze and I only hoped that it would cool down a bit more. For me, the colder, the better. I felt very at ease running the first section; my stomach started growling a bit and I was looking forward to filling it with some Accelerade soon. And then I got to the Gravel Pit station and saw Joe . . . empty-handed. He had to park more than ½ mile away from the station and hadn’t brought the bottle. In the heat of the moment of hunger, a moment of crankiness took over and then I finally succumbed to the fact that I would just have to deal with it. So I filled my bottle with Gatorade (which is normally OK, but, ummmm, it was the one flavor that I just really don’t like . . . orange). Oh well, I knew that I soon would have my pretty blue Accelerade and tried to give myself an attitude adjustment, which happened pretty soon, and then I just felt bad for my crankiness and just had to run it out of me.

The trails were in superb condition, the sun was out, but I just wasn’t yet feeling like I was in a 100 mile run. I have had this happen before and it always passes, so I wasn’t too worried. I finally found my running groove somewhere in the woods and started to feel better. I came out onto Carson Road and there was Joe and it was good to see that I hadn’t offended him to the point of abandonment. This was a huge mental boost and I apologized for my crankiness. I met up with Ed Edington and we ran down Carson Road. Ed does a great deal with helping out with this race, the website, and training runs on the course and it was good to get a little insight from him.

LIFT HOUSE 5 LOOP: I knew that this was full of steep climbs, so I tightened my shoelaces, grabbed my bottle of Acclerade, stuffed something into my mouth to chew on and headed out. The sun was out, which I feared when I realized the change in timing of this loop. Last year we ran this loop first and it wasn’t bad getting it done before the sun came out. I definitely felt the heat of the sun, even with the cooler temps, this time. The loop started out familiar and then . . . WHAM! The beginning of several steep climbs. I slalomed my way up and down the steep sections, however, on one of the shorter steeper climbs to the top lifthouse I felt a sharp tearing/burning feeling in my right calf. I immediately stopped, hoping that I had not done any major damage. After a minute of resting I resumed the climb in sort-of duck-walk-like fashion. It wasn’t pretty but I made it to the top without anymore calf pain. I so wanted to just tear-up the downhill back to the aid station but I knew this would spell disaster, tearing up the quads too early, so I just slalomed down as easy as I could. OK, six miles to go until the next aid station, so I filled two bottles to get me there, grabbed some tapioca pudding that Joe supplied, some skittles, and headed off. I know this section well. So far, so good.

LIFT HOUSE 5 TO ROCK PILE: Now it just felt like I was back in the Monster Marathon. I just couldn’t get myself into the 100-mile groove. It was a bit disturbing how I had thought that knowing the trails would be to my benefit when all I could think about as I climbed Virgil Mountain was that I was on “The Monster course” and when I crossed over to Greek Peak it was now “The Frolics course”. I wasn’t at the Virgil Crest 100 yet. The run to the rock pile was nice, as I ran with and chatted with Ed, playing leap frog almost the entire way. Knowing that Ed had completed the 100 here before and that he had been training out on the course, I was confident that the pace was good and felt comfortable and happy to run and chat with him.

ROCK PILE: Still felt good. Joe had hiked up to the rock pile and was there to refill my bottles and feed me with tapioca pudding and rice krispie treats. Yummmmm. I can’t say enough about tapioca pudding. It just goes down so easy and digests nicely. This item is definitely an ultra-fuel keeper. Refilled and refueled, nothing hurting at this point, Ed and I headed off for Daisy Hollow together.

ROCK PILE TO DAISY HOLLOW: I love this section. There are some tough climbs, but once you hit the sweet single track on the other side of Babcock Hollow Road, you’re in heaven. What?! Those dogs out on Babcock Hollow Road are still alive after all these years?! Running comfortably but still not in my 100 groove, I was brought back to the days of running the “Mountain Madness”. Was I ever going to feel like this was the 100 mile race that I wanted so badly to be in?

I had been running with Ed pretty consistently since leaving the rock pile and it was really nice. And comfortable. But I just wasn’t finding my groove. Finally I realized that I was just getting lazy, letting my run be dictated by another – not that Ed was running a bad pace or anything, but if he walked, I walked, and there were sections where I just needed to kick myself into gear. So I finally put my mind to it and found some groove and flow energy. I am much mentally tougher when I am on my own and I just needed to find that toughness. The 100-mile and 50-mile leaders had already passed me way before I even crossed Babcock Hollow road, along with several others, but now I finally hit the mother load heading back. It was really nice to see everyone and exchange good wishes.

DAISY HOLLOW: I had heard there was hot soup and potatoes out here and was really looking forward to lunch. I never miss a meal during an ultra, always taking the time to really enjoy the “real food” aid station fare. Joe was waiting for me and refilled my bottles as I enjoyed two cups of chicken soup. The hot buttery potatoes looked really excellent and I really wanted them, but the soup pretty much filled me up and I didn’t want to overdo it. As I prepared to leave Daisy Hollow Ed showed up, looking strong. I knew that he would catch me again; we played the game this far and I knew how it went. Time to head back and do it again.

ROCK PILE: I had run from Daisy Hollow to here all by myself, feeling like I was starting to find myself, but still not yet feeling like I was in a 100. WTF?! By the time I got back to this station I was soooo hungry again. And there was my tapioca pudding – my not-so-secret love, just waiting for me – with Joe and Karen, of course! I was ready for something hot and solid to eat and heard that pizza was on its way to the aid station. I really just wanted to hang out and wait for it, but after realizing that was not a reasonable idea, I headed out. My feet still felt really good (not having any of the usual “burning” that I get) and my legs felt great. I was staying hydrated and fuelled and mentally felt strong. Why didn’t I feel yet like I was at the VC100? Probably because I was back in Monster Marathon mode, just a short run to its finish, when in reality, I was nowhere near the finish.

Back down to the creek crossing . . . I remember the days when this creek would be anywhere from ankle to mid-calf deep and now it just has spurs of water that I could easily step over. When I got to the other side of the stream I realized that I hadn’t sat down since the ride to the race that morning. It was time for a brief rest, so I sat down on a tree root that circled out from the ground and had a revelation. Nature’s toilet! Truly, by the rules of trail running and hiking, this was not the place that one should relieve themselves, but it really did feel like sitting on a toilet! Now, I didn't use "the toilet" . . . but look at what I discovered! Wow . . . amazing what discoveries you can make after being out in the woods with only your own great thoughts for more than a few hours!

Still running easy and comfortable, remembering the aid station that used to be on Greek Peak that was eliminated this year. I really would have liked to just see a face here; someone to talk to. Joe, Lorrie, and I manned that station during the night last year after I had run the 50. We had the place decorated in Halloween motif with eyeball lights lighting the trail. I envisioned how it must have been to come running through the woods at night to see those lights. Cool. But now it was barren.

As I came off of the highest point on Virgil Mountain I noticed some familiar pink ribbons on the trees. Wait . . . these were the markings that I had put out to mark the Monster Marathon course three weeks earlier! So I did a little trail clean-up and pulled the ribbons and kept on running. It was nice to have something new to think about while I ran.

Finally hit the last downhill before Tone Road. It may be downhill, but it is never easy to run this. It’s tricky and can be totally quad-crushing. I am thoroughly convinced that someday I will find a body in that old boiler on the trail! This section requires so much patience and paying attention to footing that I was so so glad when I finally hit the flat of Tone Road and could run mindlessly, even for a little bit.

LIFT HOUSE 5 LOOP: Joe and Karen were waiting for me when I ran up. Good to see those faces again. I was feeling really good, of course a little tired, but not bad. Still, I just wasn’t visualizing this as only a portion of the 100 miler. Where was my mojo? Hannah, who we had met at The Stone Cat trail race last year, where she was pacing a friend in his first 50 mile race, was at the aid station. She just has so much energy and excitement and just loves being out there. This additional boost of energy was so welcome. I rested a minute, ate a bit, filled my bottles, and prepared for the loop. Man, I hoped it would be easier going the opposite direction. And at first it was. This was not long-lasted as the climb turned steep, then steeper, then never-ending. All I could think was thank goodness the ground was dry – if there had been any rain this mountain would have turned into grease. And what? There was Ed behind me again. I may have been running alone for a while but I always knew he was somewhere back there and I knew that he would come back at me.

I was so grateful when I reached the last summit and could see the final downhill. Not only was I on the ski hill, but to some degree I actually felt like I was skiing. It was much easier on the quads to slalom side-to-side on the trail rather than just bomb straight down. However, hidden muscles were letting me know they weren’t happy! The sun was still out and these steep climbs had gotten me sweating all over again. I so wanted to just lie on my side and roll down that final hill like we all did when we were kids! By the time I reached the bottom I was just mentally drained and feeling a bit chilled from my wet shirt. I wanted hot food! And there it was – piping hot quesadillas! I worried for a minute when I saw that they were filled with beans and corn, wondering how this would set with my stomach. But my hunger overtook my brain and I scarfed down one . . . and another . . . and another. Man, were they excellent! Bottles filled, dry clothes on, it was time to get this loop done. I walked a bit down the road and was finally able to pick-up a slow run until I hit Carson Road and the power-hike took over.

About half-way up Carson I met Angus as he was heading out on his second trip. He looked really strong and at ease and there wasn’t a soul near him. I was certain that, barring something horrendous, he would win the 100.

The wind picked-up and I was glad to have my long sleeve shirt on. I started running again. And then, out of nowhere, BAM! It just hit me, I just wasn’t having fun. I wanted to just finish.

GRAVEL PIT: I came out into the gravel pit station and there were just a lot of people hanging out and having fun. I wanted to have fun and I wasn’t. Joe came over and the tears just started flowing. I hoped that he and Karen would have some magic to make things better. I didn’t know what it was; I still felt fuelled, my mind was clear, my feet ached but not bad, and there really wasn’t anything wrong with me. I thought some hot food might fix things but unfortunately the propane had run out at this station and although they were working on changing it, there was no hot food waiting for me. I just sat there on a log waiting and crying. And then Joel and Scott and their gang showed up at the station. Joel and Scott had both finished the 50; they both ran strong, hard races and could now relax and enjoy. I so wanted to be them. Then I started to get chilled and decided that I would just have to get going and get hot food later. Karen brought me a cold potato, but just touching it and the thought of putting that into my mouth . . . I just couldn’t do it. So I downed my old friend tapioca, put a light jacket on, turned the headlamp on, and headed out.

I always say that I am mentally stronger when I run alone. Well, at this stage of the game that mental “toughness” takes on a whole new meaning. My mind is very convincing to me no matter what I am thinking. And I was thinking that I really wasn’t having fun. It just never clicked today. I should have stuck with my original idea to run the 50. And then it really hit me . . . I really enjoy running 50 miles, I like the long run and the time in the woods and the feeling of accomplishment once it's done. But what I really love about ultras and the ultrarunning community is the whole spirit of hanging out after the run, comparing war stories and relaxing with a good brew. Right now I am not a 100-miler. So why can’t I stop signing up for them? Why can’t I resist the temptation? Still, I remained open-minded that maybe my mind would turn around when I got to Joe and Karen and things would change. Once on the dirt road approaching the return to the Hope Lake loop, I caught-up to a woman who was running her first 50-miler. She was happy. She was hurting a bit but she was succeeding. We talked for a bit and I just kept thinking how I wanted to be at the finish, done for myself but able to cheer others in. My decision was made; would my crew go along with it?

I made it back to the start/finish area and was greeted by Joe with a big hug and Karen and a woman manning the area who asked if I was done or going on. I just looked at Joe and Karen and we walked into the pavilion to sit and talk and see where our minds were. I explained all of my thoughts to them. I was still mentally strong, fuelled, not really hurting, but I really did not want to go on. I just wasn’t feeling the love of the trail anymore and hadn’t really all day. It was a day of intense like, but not love. Karen was super; she put on the true pacer-face and asked me all the right questions, which made me really realize that my decision was the right one. Today I was not a 100-miler and I don’t know if I ever really will be. It’s time to face that. And I am OK with that. 50 miles is a good distance. Hell, 100K is a great challenge for me . . . if I could only find one close to home. All I know is that once I made the decision to stop, cracked open the growler of Hop Warrior IPA and shared it with some friends, I immediately felt at home. It was time to celebrate, not feel bad for not finishing what I had intended to do. Maybe someday I will try a 100 miler again. It’s all in the company you hang out with and when I get around those 100 milers . . . well, you see what happens. But for now, I will try to fight the temptation. I have agreed to not just spontaneously sign-up for a 100; I will discuss it with Joe first. Joe, in turn, will not let me sign-up. Not now. I still want to run long but I want to finish with that feeling of accomplishment while being done in time to party a little and celebrate with friends.

Thank you to Ian and all of the volunteers for a truly challenging day. I apologize to anyone who was subjected to my stream of f-bombs at the end of the second Lift House loop. Thank you Joe and Karen for supporting me throughout and supporting my decision . . . I am so glad to have you both there to keep me straight and I know you will do your best to help me keep my promise.

So it’s time to bring-on the Stone Cat and push my limits. It’s time to hit the trails and celebrate; I have to finish before the keg gets emptied!

"I began to learn while very young, and grew up practicing it. Now I am certain of success. I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don't struggle against the water's superior power. That's all." - The Tao Of Pooh


  1. A string of f-bombs at the end of the second alpine loop?...whatever for?

    Groove and Flow...like!

    You made a great decision to stop at 51.4...contrary to popular belief, it's hard to stop, not easy...it's also very smart. Besides, if you had gone f-bombing that alpine loop again and trashed your calf, who would I have to drink with after we kick some kitty butt at Stone Cat? Bring...it...on!!!!!!!!!!

    Great job on VCU and a great race report!

  2. Believe it, Jim - had I gone back out again the f-bombs would have been flowing like mad! Just ask my pacer, Karen ... after many hours with me at Massanutten she is sure that is the only word I know!
    Had a nice trail 20K race today; felt strong & fast (in my mind!), & I am so ready for The Cat! New beer to try, which I recovered with today - Dundee Oktoberfest - elegant!